Friday, March 14, 2014

What Makes a Lively Forum?

Just a quick few thoughts about the course I'm taking at iTDi right now called "Language Learning to Go!" with Shelly Sanchez Terrell.  First: as has been true about the other courses I've taken there, it's an amazing value for the price!  I know that I will be continuing to reap value from it for weeks or even months after it finishes.  Check out their upcoming courses and get on iTDi's mailing list.

The point of the course is to learn how to take advantage of the mobile technology that students already have access to in order to build on the classes we're teaching. But before I even get into talking about that (in another post), I want to comment on the forums that always accompany online courses.

Every online course worth its salt has a place where participants can post assignments, questions, comments, etc.  They're useful, but they often don't "take off" and become the lively, interactive meeting place they could be.  I've found that this is true for forums in general.  I've created forums for fellow teachers and for students.  Duds, generally, and I've been reflecting for some time on why that may be!  I've come to the conclusion that you can't force community.  You can only create the conditions in which it might develop.  Here are some thought about what some of those conditions might be.  Please share your own ideas, too?

- time: it can take longer than the length of a single course for people to build relationships, etc. enough to interact freely.  If the same people find themselves in courses regularly, they have more time to get to know each other.

- the mix: when it comes to adults, anyway, some people are squeezing a course into already limited free time and they may not have time to contribute as much as others to the forums.  Others are interested but inexperienced and want to observe before jumping in.  It's good to have at least two seasoned users in any new forum who can model active participation with each other. Sharing, commenting on other posts, asking questions, asking for help, helping.

- the value: people will read posts if that's where the information is that they need to complete the course requirements.  People will post if the course requires that they do so.  It should be a meaningful requirement -- what they're posting should be a unique contribution to the community.  It may also help to reward high quality contribution somehow (look at blogger awards!).

- the format: complicated formats with lots of features can overwhelm newbies, but simple formats don't have the flexibility that enables active sharing (I can't post a picture, embed a clip, etc.?).  They also don't offer the organizational features that might keep people coming back after the course is over (messages organized in categories, a search function, notification options, etc.).  This is tricky, but I think in the long run a flexible forum is best.  If people spend a lot of time there (taking several courses, coming back to refer to old posts), they will learn forum skills that will help them in the future.

- good moderation: levels of moderation vary greatly.  I have weathered some completely unmoderated troll-fests, and I have been in tightly-restricted discussions where you get scolded for deviating even slightly off-topic!  A good moderator (like a good teacher?) makes it look as if it's not even happening. But a forum that's going well has probably been set up with care and there's probably some (underappreciated) work going on in the background!

Enjoyable as f2f?  (tx to Jirat Sola)

I feel motivated to comment on this because I think the forum in "Language Learning to Go!" is particularly active!  I like the format (Google+ Communities) because it's flexible but not too hard to learn.  Our community is private, but it merges seamlessly with a social forum that we may already be using.  That may encourage some of us to keep using it after the course is over.  In our community, categories have been set up for our posts, which makes for easier reading.  The group's key documents are in a well-defined reference area.  There are almost 30 people on the list, so we have a good mix of newbies and also very seasoned participants. Volunteers are on standby to help newbies with questions.  Some folks know each other (or know of each other) from past classes, blog reading, etc. so there's a little bit of community already in place. The course requires that we post assignments, reflect, and comment -- and the assignments are to share resources, which will be valuable information to refer to later.  Oh, and the format of the lessons themselves (Adobe virtual classroom) is also highly relaxed and flexible, with patient moderators who help us feel comfortable contributing, starting a half hour before the formal action begins.

In other words, I sense many of the attributes that can be the beginning of (or an addition to) a teacher's PLN!

My thanks to iTDi for their "advanced" series.  I can see it evolving with each course into something really dynamic!

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